Friday, April 26, 2019

Beethoven the expressive

At the final Beethoven lecture on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony I pointed to what I felt was a rather odd little one-note trumpet dotted figure sandwiched between phrases near the opening of the first movement. It seemed to recall the music of an earlier generation, the public musical flourishes of Mozart in many of his symphonies or piano concerti. It was a tiny detail, easy to ignore, a simple musical glue amidst what could have been construed as the more interesting string figure, the theme of the third movement in embryo. But I spent a few moments fixating on the passing trumpet comment instead.

At the end of the same movement is a ghostly chromatic figure over which the woodwinds trill in the style of a funeral march. It also seems to come out of nowhere, a strangely powerful moment that has not been set up by any of the preceding material.

What both of these moments have in common is that they don't seem to be connected to the musical fabric. Beethoven, the master of motivic transformation and large-scale connection, seems to have gone outside the logic of theme and pattern and embraced pre-made musical elements, fragments that would suggest ideas, moods, occasions, because of their ubiquitous use in Viennese musical life, and not because he had defined them via his own symphonic context.

Beethoven's willingness to do that should jolt us out of any cliched view of the master as one who simply worked within his own musical ambit, fashioning meaning from a manipulation of very economically distributed blocks. It might also tell us, that at least in this symphony, he felt the need to push outward into the realm of the program, the philosophy, the idea, to stretch his compositional methods to the breaking point because what he wanted to say was vitally important and he needed every compositional resource available.

That he embedded these arresting glimpses of a symphonic beyond amidst logically connected motivic elements on a huge scale is an incredible testament to his variety of approach. This is the composer who is known for working in small musical segments but who could, on occasion, write a beautiful, long-breathed melody. Transitions can be condensed to the point of nothing, or spray the unwary listener with gallons of supercilious notes. Tension can build to a mighty climax, or the ending can simply evaporate in a puff of humor.

The Ninth Symphony is overwhelming. The first two movements are staggering, over half and hour of loud and dramatic, unrelieved by a slow movement of such beauty and intensity that the listener is close to exhaustion before the final movement, the architectural omega, with its celebrated Ode to Joy, even begins.

Beethoven had a lot to say. It took him 12 years to say it.

I've been thinking about Douglas Adams's quote that the music of Beethoven "show us what it is like to be Beethoven." I think he's right. And very wrong. This music shows us far more.

If I had five more lectures I still wouldn't be able to unpack that idea. Gustav Mahler, one of Beethoven's symphonic heirs, said that a symphony "is like the world. It should embrace everything."

He owes that idea to Beethoven, who started composers on that path. The result is to stretch expression to the breaking point, filling it with contradiction after contradiction, each new method overthrowing the old, while shedding light on everything that came before and everything that is to come after. Take that too far and we are on the cusp of meaning nothing at all.

A small composer expresses him or herself, and that only. Adams thought that rather than Beethoven it was Bach who "shows us what it is like to be the universe." Which is apt in that Bach lived in the age before artistic self-expression was even a current in the ocean of ideas, though inapt if you consider the universe to be cold and lifeless and enormously beyond expressiveness. It was Adams's admiration for Bach which kept him from seeing something else about Beethoven, something which does not negate his power to reveal himself any more than a stained glass window shows us its beauty by blocking the rays of the sun.

Beethoven shows us what it is like to be alive.
you know the drill: 

Friday, April 19, 2019

Beethoven and Us

I asked students in my class to share some of their stories related to Beethoven. After focusing on Beethoven's music for four and a half weeks, I wanted to provide a window for our personal encounters with the music and the man, whether positive or negative. Here are a few snippets:

"When my sister and I were about 8 and 10, we started taking piano lessons.  Our parents, who had had no musical education themselves, were determined that their children would get the musical education they hadn’t had themselves.  In fact, my mother decided to take piano lessons as well.  I remember one year, night after night, trying to go to sleep as Mom practiced “Fur Elise” downstairs - painstakingly going over passages again and again and again.  By the end of that year, I swore I’d never listen to that blasted piece again."

So, no "Fur Elise" in class. Got it. Actually there were a few of you who wrote that they couldn't stand that piece anymore. 

But not everybody.

"My parents before me enjoyed Beethoven's music and I must have heard it growing up. I started piano lessons at the age of 8, and was playing Für Elise when I was about 12. I thought I played it reasonably well and was quite pleased I could play it without notes for my recital. That was a very positive first encounter with, and owning of, a Beethoven piece."

See, some folks have a nice time with that piece. 

I expected a few Beethoven encounters to be rocky, however. Here is a very well written insight into just one such difficulty. The subject line was "Beethoven without Fear."

"Around the mid-1970s, grocery stores would sometimes offer merchandise specials to woo customers.  Usually it was cookware, like a nonstick skillet, or necessities like dish towels, but sometimes the specials veered away from the kitchen, like Volume 1 of an encyclopedia at a low introductory price.  And on one occasion, it was records – the 33 1/3 LPs that were the still the leading technology of the time (just before cassette tapes). And the very first one offered for sale was Beethoven's 6th Symphony, for something like $1.99.

Although I was very budget-minded young mother at the time, this went into the shopping cart, but not without some trepidation. Beethoven scared me.  I had been a fan of Bach (the first classical album I ever bought) and Mozart (I played Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for our kids at night, as my mother had done for me). But Beethoven always seemed intimidating. He was a giant, yet to me he seemed too loud, too long and overwrought. What little I did know— his greatest hits (the 5th, Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata) –  were so overplayed as to seem either overbearing or tedious.

I knew I had to be missing something. So I bought the album, took it home and played it, and it was lovely. The kids calmed down and even my husband -- strictly a jazz devotee -- enjoyed it. I played it again, and again, and again. We still love it."

I'll come back to that letter later. In the meantime, here is a story of consistent effort:

"So when I was around 15 years old, a good friend and me decided we wanted to learn all the Beethoven symphonies. We didn’t have a classical radio station in the city, and my home only had Chopin Waltzes, Swan Lake, and Bolero, all chosen by my mother when we joined the Columbia record club. I had a boxy record player. There was a place in downtown Montreal called The Record Store, and every week we would take the bus down there to rent a symphony. We started with the first symphony and in 9 weeks had heard them all!  It cost $1.00 a record to rent."

I remember hours spent in music libraries listening to things I wanted to be able to hear all of. In college I actually worked my way through the Haydn symphonies. All 104. It took a couple of years, though.

I wanted to talk about our personal encounters with the music because some time during my preparation of some of the piano sonatas (by the way, I played at least one movement from 8 of the 32 sonatas during the course of the class) I realized that I could remember when and where I had first learned many of them, and sometimes even had fond memories of my initial exposure to the music. 

In high school I purchased a CD which contained Vladimir Ashkenazy's interpretations of three Beethoven Sonatas: The Moonlight, Appassionata, and Pathetique. I played all of them in class (but only the first movement of the Appassionata). I remember wishing to play the Appassionata, but not having the music. I grew up in a small town without a classical music store, and I had no idea where to get a copy of the sonatas. So I went about it another way: I listened to the piece again and again, and learned to play the entire sonata by ear. Some time later, at a summer music camp on a university campus, I stopped in at their library to see the actual score. The page was thick with notes. I remember thinking, man, this piece is hard! Good thing I didn't know that at the time!

This was a story I did not share in class because we were pressed for time. I'm glad so many of you shared your stories. I still have a few more things to say about Beethoven, so although the class is over, I'll keep blogging about him for another week. Stay tuned, and thanks!
The Easter edition is up at Check it out!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

In the middle of the night...I go writing about Beethoven in my sleep

I am writing this blog at 4 a.m. I've been awakened by our cat, not by the usual method of jumping on our bed (which mainly disturbs my wife and is why Rosamunda is only permitted to sleep with us on weekends*), but because the overnight low is not as low anymore and her furry warmth was a little too pronounced. Did I mention she likes to sleep on top of my legs? I know how Snoopy's doghouse must feel.

Being awake, my mind decided to go to work, thinking about Beethoven. It's been doing that a lot these days. Tomorrow we'll wrap up a series of five lectures about the Bard of Bonn. I called them all "Beethoven the Revolutionary" and the class focused on four different aspects of Beethoven's musical personality, with the Ninth Symphony thrown in for good measure, and a chance to share our own Beethoven stories (that's tomorrow).

As I've been immersed in Beethoven for several months now, I can't help incorporating some of his methodology. Beethoven likes to connect ideas like few mortals ever have, particularly over a large area. A thematic idea from the beginning will show up at the end. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony begins and ends with the same interval. 75 minutes later he is still thinking of that downward fifth.

So it is appropriate to begin and end the journey the same way, in the middle of the night, when I can't sleep, writing about Beethoven.

It was sometime around 2 a.m. on an early fall night that I awoke, hot, and, not being able to sleep, at first lay in bed vainly trying. But in my mind I began to hear myself giving a lecture on Beethoven. This turned out to be useful.

It was useful because I was about to teach a class on the movie "Amadeus," which I had wanted to do for quite some time, and which seemed like a great idea for a class. The problem with having a great idea is not the idea itself but having a sequel. I had already gotten a course on the organ out of my system. Whither next? Not to mention that there was a deadline approaching for proposing a course (the deadline for the spring semester comes even before you've begun to teach in the fall) and I hate not knowing where I'm going to go next.

Then the tenor jumped up and said "friends, away with this uncertainty..."

As Mental Me began to go on and on about the music of a composer I could talk about for hours, I realized I'd kick myself if I fell back asleep and forgot what I was creating. So I got up and wrote on a sheet of paper an outline for a five week course, what topics I would cover each week, what music I would play, major ideas to be incorporated into a series of forays into the music and the ways Beethoven's compositional obsessions could be approached. Then, two hours later, I fell asleep. And months later, when it was time to put it into practice, I did what Beethoven did. I changed my mind about a lot of it.

Through January and February I mainlined a lot of Beethoven. Sonatas I hadn't played in years. About seven sonatas in all. Some of them didn't make the cut. Some of the more overplayed did, but I hope I used them in creative ways so they didn't seem stale. I tried to approach each one differently, to get at a different aspect of Beethoven's musical mind, as well as to shed light on the compositional process itself. Then there were recordings of the symphonies. We listened to sections large and small. we talked about recurring themes, Beethoven's love of jerking his audience around and making them wait for things, sometimes the whole thing revolved around a single note. I improvised, and played in two keys at once, talked about musical punctuation, and made jokes about chickens. Beethoven's bust never smiled (it was Mozart anyway).

Tomorrow it ends, at least for this incarnation. Before I go I want to thank my class. I'm grateful to them for sharing the experience. Besides sharing wonderful Beethoven stories and asking good questions, they've been a really attentive, listening audience. When I start to play a sonata you can hear a pin drop. This includes the space between movements, but is particularly noticeable during all of the dramatic silences that Beethoven loves to write. The other day one of my colleagues complained about audience behavior. I have no complaints. It is infinitely rewarding to let Beethoven paint his tonal mysteries on a bed of complete silence. Nobody even hacked up a lung during one of the slow movements (take that, Heinz Hall!) All this was evident within the first thirty seconds of the first class when I made the choice-- in a class whose focus was the music itself-- to begin with the music itself. For the first time I opened a class without introducing myself. I simply walked onto the proscenium, sat down at the piano, and started with the rolled chord from the opening of the Tempest sonata. I didn't say as much as hello until I'd played the entire first movement. There had been the usual pre-class chatting, of course, but within five seconds of the first note from the piano, all competing noise had ceased. They hadn't particularly noticed when I ascended the stairs to the piano and sat down quietly, but the instant they heard musical sound they took it as if someone was speaking to them and they wanted to hear what he had to say. I wish more people understood this to be true, rather than assuming that anybody who isn't singing is just there to perfume the air while they continue to be impressed by their own observations about the weather.

The Beethoven stories I'll share with you on Friday. I expected there to be a certain amount of remembered unhappiness with a man who set really high standards and made it hard to follow, wrapped up in fraught issues like childhood piano lessons and trips to hear men in tuxedos demanding quiet and doing weird things like stabbing the air with batons and blowing and plucking things that never really got explained but they sure seemed unfriendly. There was that, of course, and a healthy amount of overcoming, just like our hero.

I was reminded by a colleague that 2020 is going to be a big year for Beethoven. It will be his 250th birth year. I trust we'll all be ready for the Beethovenian onslaught. I'll be teaching about something else by then, but I hope these talks and the performances of the music will help us go into the year with a real passion for and understanding of the music. I called these lectures 'interactive program notes' and I hope they plant seeds that grow with each listening to all of the great music that has been left us by our gifted fellow humans.

Soon it will be time to get on with other things. But will we soon forget our sojourn with brother Beethoven?

Not I.

*this was written Saturday "morning."
**I have no idea why the title is a reference to a Billy Joel song. My mind thought it up.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Out of the symphonic ooze

There are different ways to approach the learning process, and ways to make pieces of classical music seem intelligible and familiar to audiences abound. Most of them involve demonstrations, and talking about the various themes and transitions. I've tried that.

In our first [Beethoven the Revolutionary] class, I played a sonata movement right at the start. Then later, after planting various ideas in the heads of the students by way of other sonata movements and symphonies, I brought those ideas into the domain of the first piece, talked about them, and played the piece again to end the class. Repetition.

Other times I simply point out salient features of the piece and then play it. Or play it first and then point out the salient features. Or just play the piece and let people make of it what they will. Or, once, take them on a talking tour but never actually play the entire piece--just the talking points.

Last week I tried a different method. After the intermission I sat at the piano and improvised on themes from the sonata movement I was about to play. The effect, I suppose, was somewhat like a solo cadenza from a piano concerto. I tried to use all the various bits of material Beethoven used, freely, letting them wander in different directions than had the composer. Also, some of the themes I imagined in a more primitive state. Beethoven of course was a gifted improviser, and he was also a composer who revised constantly. His initial ideas were not always that great, but eventually he fashioned them into something mighty. By letting some of the themes evolve during my improvisation, I hoped to approximate something like what might have happened when Beethoven was starting work on the sonata.

This may have gone a little bit into the specialist weeds, and perhaps it will not be something that many of my students will remember, despite the fact that virtually anyone else teaching the class would not have been able to do this. I found it interesting. If I weren't so busy at the moment I would have made recordings of the improvisation and the sonata movement so you could compare them. For now you'll just have to enjoy the concept. Maybe I'll get around to it this summer. I'm blogging about it now partially to remind myself that I did this, before the class is a distant memory and all I have are some incomplete teaching notes.

Improvisation is a good survival skill (such as when you have too much music to prepare in a given week or your lecture runs short) but it is also an insight into the creative process. Being able to take a given them and imagine other possibilities gives one a different relationship to the music, to be able to dialogue with it, and then to relish all the more the paths that Beethoven did take.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Dancing with Beethoven

Welcome to the Ludwig van Beethoven School of Dance. You can ignore those little footprints on the floor...we won't be needing them, Ever. Those are for people who think inside the box. Unlike our esteemed composer.

Yesterday, while we were discussing all the tonal peregrinations in the introduction to the Fourth Symphony, we were ignoring the third, in which even the most basic rhythmic elements are continually subverted, messed with, and otherwise played upon, to come up with a very interesting piece of music when by rights it should only be mildly entertaining. If you'd like to do some field research you'll need a recording of the first movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. 5,6,7,8...

BAM! BAM! Hear that? Those two loud chords at the beginning are there to let you know that what you are about to listen to is anything but a polite little waltz.

And that winsome little theme that follows is there to tell you that you are listening to a nice little waltz. If you expect Beethoven to make up his mind you will be waiting a long time.

Now the thing to note is how many different ways Beethoven is able to accent a simple measure of three beats. Many a composer has gone most of their compositional life accenting only the first beat, and leaving the other two for getting over the shock. Not our Ludwig. Even the opening theme has a slight variation:

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3

To say nothing of what happens a few bars later when he decides he's done with dactyls and thinks he will try trochees (in other words, switching from threes to twos)

1 2 3 1 2 31 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 32 3 1 2 3

if you're dancing this one at home, you now have two measures in which you can rest your second left foot.

There is a nice "theme" on one note, in which the clarinet treats us to a steady crescendo. This is a prelude to an even longer crescendo later on. It is Beethoven trying not to tax your ears by using too many notes. How is only one, over and over?

It is hard to stress two beats consecutively; perhaps the second is even louder than the first, but they both get to be forceful.

123 1 2 3123 1 2 3

Finally, don't forget our conventional pattern, which by now seems anything but conventional. The world has been upside down for so long, that turning it the "normal" way will seem fresh and new. And anyway, Beethoven doesn't seem to want to do it willingly. It's as if Mother Waltz forced it out of young Beethoven, who responds sarcastically, putting brusque, vicious accents on the first beat:

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 31 2 3 1

He doesn't seem to be able to quite hang on to it, though, does he?

And this has been Dancing With Beethoven. Remember to return your rented shoes into the bin by the fire extinguisher, and if you need a rest there is a fifteen-minute funeral march coming up after this movement is over. Are there any questions? Oh yes, you in the back.

No, I'm sorry, you won't be getting your Kreutzer back.

it's the last of our out-sized Beethoven weeks on the homepage of But our featured recording has taken a break from all that for Holy Week, and the rest of the page is taken up with Flashy toccatas, and how to practice by not practicing. That's what happens when one gets the flu--everything is a little off! Come for the Pianonoise Palm Sunday Potluck, this week.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Toward a Beethovenian musical personality profile

Have you ever been to see somebody you hadn't seen for about twenty years and they joyfully proclaim, "you haven't changed a bit!"

That's probably bull-hockey, but we seem to be wired to want to recognize personality traits and hang onto those despite any conflicting evidence. You and I have probably changed a great deal in twenty years, but there may, in fairness, be some things that have remained more or less the same.

When it comes to a composer, one can often observe similar ideas across the board in their works, too. This is a bit harder, given so much musical information over such a wide swath of time. But it can still hold, and, even it it oversimplifies things, making a list of those frequently encountered traits in a composer's music might give us some insights into the way they communicate musically. Here's the start of one for Beethoven:

Beethoven likes to work with short musical ideas (except when he doesn't). These can be subject to endless manipulation, and by changing a single note, can send the composition spinning off in a completely different direction.

Beethoven enjoys exploring harmonies by full, rich, arpeggiated passages, usually in the development section and/or codas, making active, hair-raisingly virtuoso moments out of what could otherwise be simple chord progressions. Although, for a definition of simple, see the last paragraph.

Beethoven can work within predictably classical phrase structures. But often he willfully stretches a passage out, or transitions suddenly from one thing to another. Ideas or keys can also collide roughly. Sometimes Beethoven does this to play with our expectations, even tease us, amuse us, or annoy us. These can be experienced as transgressions against all things good (as his contemporaries often felt) but there is no reason to imagine that Beethoven wasn't trying to let us in on the humor or the exploration, so long as we are willing to come along.

Beethoven is a great musical architect. Little details often become major plot points later on. No transitional passage lasts longer than the material wants it to. Even his endings can, far from the conventional image of the repeated blasts, simply evaporate. In fact,

Beethoven's music shows enormous variety. It hardly fits in the popular image of him. And if you have time to really listen to his music, you'll notice that. There is little that can be said of him that would apply to everything he wrote; in fact, some of his music will show the opposite quality. It suggests he was always interested in trying new things, not repeating himself, and willing to go where the material led him, rather than coming at a piece with a set of assumptions about the genre or style he was supposed to be working in. A symphony does not have to be grand, or a sonata small. Each piece is its own creature.

This is only the start. Given a whole semester to think about his music has challenged some of the things I and my teachers thought about Beethoven in years past. Some ideas hold, others are being "updated." For example, the way he uses the sforzando mark. But I'll save that for later.

The man did put an enormous number of marks on paper. And it is amazing what we can do with all of that.

Douglas Adams once remarked (trying to express admiration for Bach) that "Beethoven's music shows us what it was like to be Beethoven" (before suggesting that Bach's music "shows us what it is like to be the universe"). I don't know, though. It might seem small by comparison, but that fellow had a lot to say. And being Beethoven must have been quite something.

He can have it, though. Along with my admiration. And my attention.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Symphonic Birding

We did some Beethovenian bird watching yesterday.

Beethoven is not particularly known for his programmatic music. When he did write a piece of story-driven battle music, "Wellington's Victory," it made him enormously popular for a while, but it is regarded today as one of his most embarrassing compositions.

He did, however, concoct a program for one of the nine symphonies. It is concise--in fact, it is downright terse if you compare it to the flowery, verbose plan of musical action left behind by the Swabian composer Hienrich Knecht, whose  "pastorale" symphony seems to have provided the inspiration for Beethoven's own. Sir George Grove speculated that Beethoven, seeing the advertisements for that symphony on the backs of Beethoven's own early piano sonatas from his Viennese publisher, thought he could do it better. And he did.

Beethoven's plan also evokes the natural world, an idyllic world of shepherds and babbling brooks, with a storm and a hymn of rejoicing at the end. What is interesting is how this unique foray into narrative-fueled music changed the way he wrote music.

On one hand, it didn't. Beethoven was working on his fifth symphony at the same time, and at yesterday's lecture I illustrated what would happen if you took the first four notes from the sixth and made the same dramatic, dialogical treatment with that motif, trying to turn the sixth into the fifth. It didn't really work, which illustrates the difference in materials. Yet Beethoven still pauses the symphony after only a few measures to set off the motif from what he will do with it. The first movement is still in sonata form, it still involves ubiquitous repetition of the motif, he still builds intensely dramatic climaxes by piling those fragments atop one another, exploring harmonies outside the key in the development section, suddenly veering from one tonality to another merely by changing a single note. Even the recapitulation features a slight digression before he gets into its heart, though this time it is not a oboe solo.

On the other hand, those motific fragments often float on repeated patterns that evoke running rivers or rolling meadows. Sometimes those motifs disappear altogether, and we have motion without melody, repetitively rising and falling, multiple measures of simple crescendo where only the dynamic is making the piece move. It is an early exercise in minimalism.

The birds are there, too. They are not merely reserved for that celebrated spot at the end of the Scene by the Brook where Beethoven stops the music and lets three woodwinds twitter away. They are everywhere, but because they are so seamlessly integrated into the symphonic fabric, we might not notice them. It only takes a couple of notes to suggest a bird call, and Beethoven need not labor the point, especially when he has such a wealth of material to develop. A measure here, a measure there, and he has made us aware of their presence without stopping the music, or veering from his musical materials. In fact, it is in the process of developing them that the birds arrive, so naturally, so integrally, that it is no embarrassment to any symphonist to evoke. And we can listen responsibly, hearing but not disturbing, noticing without getting off the path and damaging the undergrowth or disturbing the wildlife.